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Movie review: 'Transcendence' fails to connect



Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a leading artificial intelligence researcher in the heady, new science fiction thriller, Transcendence (opening today). It's a film with a quite interesting premise that feels badly undercooked. The first half of the film is slow and clunky but its major flaw is that it betrays the golden rule of science fiction: You must set rules within your world and all of what happens must make sense within those rules. Transcendence does not play by the rules, and in this case, that's a very bad thing.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Used with Permission.

In the (near?) future, Dr. Caster and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) have developed an advanced super-computer called PINN, that they claim is actually capable of independent thought. Further, this computer is smarter than the collective intelligence of every person that has ever lived. When asked at a conference if he is trying to create a God, Caster replies something along the lines of "isn't that what man has always tried to do?"

The dangers of this potential technology has led to the creation of militant underground factions that oppose PINN. During a coordinated terrorist attack that targeted several artificial intelligence laboratories across the U.S., Dr. Caster is grazed by a bullet. It doesn't seem so bad at first, but the bullet was laced with some sort of radioactive material that will eat away at his body and eventually kill him.

In an attempt to save him, his wife Evelyn and a trusted colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), attempt to upload Dr. Caster's brain into PINN. This type of thing had been done on monkeys with success but never has a human brain been uploaded to a mainframe. The casual explanation for this is that our brain is just a series of electronic pulses, pulses that can be duplicated and saved just like a Word document.

What results from their crazy attempt is unexpected, incredibly dangerous and just a tad implausible, even for a science fiction film. Now "alive" inside the computer, Dr. Caster is uploaded to the internet and soon has complete control over all living things, due to his ability to control everything "connected." Advanced regeneration technology is available that allows Caster to even inhabit the bodies of people who were "touched" by his powers.

In other words, Caster becomes a God, of sorts.

The film itself is a virtual mash-up of ideals we've seen in the past, with echoes of films like Tron and the more recent Her, to age-old tales like Frankenstein. It's religious themes are more than an under-current. Caster heals cripples, has the ability to make and shape the world as he sees it and possesses ultimate power. His weakness could end up being his love for humanity...which might foreshadow an eventual Jesus-like, ultimate sacrifice needed in order to preserve mankind.

But as mentioned, man are there flaws in this story. On a practical level, once Caster is uploaded, he freely wires money to Evelyn so that they can fund a massive underground laboratory. Even years later, this illegal transfer goes unnoticed? Does anyone stop to wonder where Evelyn got all of this money? On a more cerebral level, the film is horribly inconsistent, often coming up with poorly thought-out scenarios seemingly on the spot. For example, this uber-powerful omnipotent being that has enough juice to literally control the weather and cheat death, suddenly only has enough power at the end to either save Evelyn, or humanity, but not both. Meh.

Moments like that occur more than once. There is a lot of tech talk and quick explanations given, but none of it really adds up. You must....MUST...create believability, if you are asking an audience to believe in the unbelievable. That sounds convoluted, but the best science-fiction is when you leave it unable to poke holes in its own created logic.

Not only is this film more fiction than science, but it contains a number of under-developed characters...none of which we even marginally care about. Morgan Freeman is there, but I'm not sure why. Cillian Murphy is an FBI Agent who seems more like a sleepy detective trapped in the wrong movie. Paul Bettany - as the friend scientist - is the only actor given anything remotely interesting to work with and actually does a decent job in creating the film's only hints of real emotion.

And what's the point, really? The dangers of technology is a played out concept and this film offers little in the way of fresh insight. Yes, as Data taught us on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's not so easy being human. We get it.

First-time director Wally Pfister happens to be a long-time cinematographer...he's actually been the director of photography on all of Christopher Nolan's films, and more. So you can be sure that Transcendence looks cool.

But much like it's main character, it's just missing a soul. Transcendence is an example of high-concept ambivalence that falls flat due to poor execution.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi

Run Time: 1 hours, 59 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring : Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser

Directed by Wally Pfister (feature-film directorial debut, long-time Cinematographer)

Opens locally on Friday, April 18, 2014 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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